By: Robin Everett, Wyoming State Archives
Throughout history, when governments have perceived threats from within, they have taken measures to protect their sovereignty. Unfortunately, there is ancillary damage along the way – innocents caught in the process because of who they are and what their heritage is. One such measure is a US federal law passed just after entry into WWI, the Espionage Act of 1917. An extension of the Espionage Act came a year later, when Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, which covered a broader range of offenses, notably speech. The Act forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the US government.
During WWI, invoking the interests of national security, US authorities required non-naturalized citizens to register as “enemy aliens”. The action targeted several nationalities, but focused mainly on non-citizen German born residents. Women born in the US, married to such individuals were also included.
The State Archives has a small collection of enemy alien registrations from some cities, district courts and the US Department of Justice. Like many records created for one purpose, they now serve another: genealogical research. If your ancestors might have been included in this group, read on: In 1920, Congress authorized the destruction of these records, but some have survived. The National Archives has some from Missouri, Arizona and Kansas. Strewn across the country in various state/local archives and libraries, are more records. These records contain biographical information, a physical description, and usually a photograph. The form also asked about loyalties to the US or sympathies to the enemy. Registrants were expected to provide names of friends and family members serving in enemy armed forces. The documents reproduced here show the registration of a Henry Schweder of Sheridan County, Wyoming, and includes listings of his wife and daughter, a photo – and the notation that he was blind.
To determine whether these records may contain some of your ancestors, start with the Federal Census prior to and following WWI. Information contained on the 1910 federal census can assist you in determining an ancestor’s citizenship prior to WWI Enemy Alien Registration. As a follow-up, the 1920 census specifically asks the year of naturalization. Through deciphering information from both returns an ancestor’s 1918 citizenship status may be determined. All open U.S. census returns are available via AncestryLibrary.com in all Wyoming libraries.
Basic research of WWI era Wyoming newspapers provides reports of actions being taken not only locally but in other countries and across the US. In April 1917, various Wyoming newspapers reported how New York police officers directed all enemy aliens to turn over all firearms. An October 1917 Park County Enterprise reports how many American women, through marriage were now perceived as potential enemies, – even Gloria Vanderbilt. In December 1917, a Newcastle man was held for federal authorities, after making seditious talk. Various April and May 1920 Laramie newspapers reported on a German born male, who had registered as an enemy alien and had illegally voted in a local election.
For further reading
“Featured Story: Rights Amid Threats” from online exhibit, “Documented Rights.” National Archives and Records Administration, https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/documented-rights/exhibit/section3/rights-amid-threats.html, accessed August 16, 2017.
“Civil Liberties in Wartime,” from Share America online exhibit by the Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State, https://share.america.gov/civil-liberties-wartime/ accessed August 16, 2017.